Saudi Airstrikes in Yemen: How Complicit is Europe?

On 24 February, the European Parliament ratified a movement calling on EU countries to halt all arms transfers to Saudi Arabia. This legislation was specifically targeted at Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the ongoing civil war in Yemen. One EU legislator, Richard Howitt, told Reuters, ‘This is about Yemen. The human rights violations have reached a level that means Europe is obliged to act and to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia’. In this case, however, what the EU Parliament says, and what EU member states do, are vastly different: EU member states have provided much of the arsenal with which Saudi Arabia, and the broader Gulf Cooperation Council, have been bombing Yemen. Despite what the European Parliament may say, these arms transfers render a number of EU member states complicit in Saudi airstrikes.

Image courtesy of Gordon Zammit © 2010, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Gordon Zammit © 2010, some rights reserved.

Yemen: What’s Going On?

The current Yemeni conflict broke out in 2015, but its origins lie in a longstanding Houthi insurgency. The Houthis are an ethnicity in the mountainous north of Yemen who have long been marginalised in Yemeni politics. In January 2015, Houthi rebels captured the presidential complex in the capital Sana’a, announcing the formation of a Revolutionary Committee that would administer Yemen. In February, the president whom the Houthis had deposed, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, escaped captivity to Aden, where he denounced the Houthi government. From this point, two broad factions emerged. The Houthi rebels have allied with some government forces who were loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, deposed in the Arab Spring. On the other side are forces loyal to Hadi, the president whom the Houthi rebels deposed. In addition, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (ALAP) has taken control of large amounts of rural territory.

The Saudi Government supports the ‘government’ forces loyal to Hadi. Partially, this support is due to a widespread perception within the Saudi government that the Houthi rebels are supported by the Saudi’s regional rival: Iran. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in what some observers have called a Cold War in the Middle East.

Whether or not Iran actually is providing support to the Houthi rebels remains uncertain, but even if Iran’s support is imaginary, the effect of that support is very real. Saudi Arabia, as the leader of the Gulf Cooperation Council, has conducted a large number of air strikes on Houthi held positions. Large civilian casualties and a ‘disastrous humanitarian situation’ have been attributed to these strikes. Most notably, Saudi Arabia has been using CBU-105 cluster munitions, which are manufactured in America. Cluster munitions have been banned by a UN convention since 2008, as they indiscriminately target both militants and civilians. Only two countries have failed to ratify that convention: the United States and Saudi Arabia. As such, the Saudi intervention in Yemen clearly violates international norms of conduct.

How Much Is Europe to Blame?

It would be ridiculous to claim Europe is solely at fault: the current conflict in Yemen is a result of a swirling tumult of internal political instability, and external factors, such as the Saudi Arabia-Iran Cold War and the Arab Spring. However, to claim that Europe is not complicit in Saudi Air Strikes would be ridiculous. Saudi Arabia needs arms to bomb Yemen, and Europe has been more than willing to provide. Using data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)’s arms transfers database, the following figure shows EU arms sales to Saudi Arabia from 2005 to 2010 in constant millions 1990 US Dollars.


As the figure illustrates, Europe has engaged in massive arms transfers to Saudi Arabia; only the United States has sold more. Sweden has sold antitank missiles and Saab-2000 transport aircraft. Spain sold a variety of tanker aircraft. The Netherlands sold ground surveying radar. Italy sold Falco UAVs. Germany sold UAVs, patrol craft, and diesel engines for self-propelled guns. France sold the rest of the self-propelled guns, along with armoured personal carriers, AS565 Panther helicopters, Mistal portable SAMs, and various electronic warfare systems. Belgium sold the cannons for Canadian-built tank turrets, and Saudi Arabia sold M12 120mm mortars. However, the biggest contributor to the Saudi airstrikes is the United Kingdom, which has provided:


The United Kingdom has provided the most direct support, between three different types of air to ground munitions, a large set of Eurofighter Typhoons, which function as ground attack aircraft, training aircraft, and have airborne refuelling capabilities. While it is likely that Saudi Arabia could simply turn elsewhere to procure these arms, the fact remains that the UK has enabled the Saudi campaign of air strikes.

These figures reveal that the EU is complicit in these airstrikes. While it is true that the United States is providing the worst of the munitions (the cluster bombs) European states are still making a tidy profit off the conflict. The European Parliament may place an embargo on arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, but this resolution is nonbinding on member states. And, while the arms embargo may put pressure on arms dealing states, these states are already operating against a 2008 European code of conduct on arms transfers, whereby EU states promised not to sell arms to states who may violate international humanitarian law. A nonbinding embargo is simply insufficient to arrest the massive flow of arms from Europe to Saudi Arabia.